back to the Black Table

One of my parentsí favorite stories to tell involves a Thanksgiving from about 20 years ago. We were visiting my grandparents, and the adults were inside watching football and complaining about their jobs. The kids, from the vast selection of cousins Ė my father has seven brothers and sisters Ė were running around the back yard, playing tag, wrestling, mocking the meek.

Somehow, we wandered into the garage. My grandfather had left a can of white paint out and open. Roaming around the area was a cat, belonging to a next-door neighbor, I believe. The other kids were playing football, but I was toying with the cat, an alley cat that hung around for the food. I saw the paint canister, and the brush. And I saw the cat. It was grey, tiger-striped. It had a white spot on its nose. The thought arose: This cat should be more symmetrical. This cat could use some more white.

A screech ran up from the garage, and a grey, hissing blur streaked through the backyard. A couple children screamed in glee and fright. A few adults came outside to determine the source of the fuss. There, cornered, was a nasty, frothing feline with splotches of white paint peppering its tail. "Who did this?" thundered my mother. One of the cousins, a rat, fingered me. My mother knew better. Not her sweet, gifted boy. He would never be that reckless.

She called out for me, and I, as always, eagerly sprang forth. "Will, did you paint that catís tail?" No, Mom, of course it wasnít me. It was Scott. Scott was always getting in trouble. That was enough for Mom. Her six-year-old son had told her he hadnít painted the cat, and that was all that needed to be said. She then looked at my right shoe. It was covered in paint. She asked again. "Will, did you paint the cat?" I told her no, no, of course not.

She wasnít even mad at me. She just began to cry. Her son, her pride and joy, had reached the age where he could stare his mother straight in the face and lie to her. "I never treated you the same way after that," Mom likes to say today. She talked of how she cried for two days afterwards. Her darling boy had been introduced to the world of lying, cheating, and deceit, an introduction of adult indulgences to a childís sensibility.


I am in Alexandria, Virginia. How nice it is here.

My friend Matt, whose wedding I attended this summer, recently moved here from St. Louis with his wife, a lawyer. I hadnít seen their new home yet, and I had no Thanksgiving plans, so I was invited to come visit for the holiday. "We have a guest room, and weíll love to have you."

I was eager to see his new home. In St. Louis, where I lived in a ratty apartment covered in week-old pizza and tattered notebook paper, Matt was the only person I knew who owned his own house. He hadnít inherited a bunch of money or anything; he just saved and was smart and paid attention and financed until he had his own home. Now, he has a better job that presumably pays more, and heís married to a lawyer whose attention to decor would put Martha Stewart to shame.

But I was a little blown away. There are three floors. A huge backyard. Three bathrooms. (Three!) Four guest rooms. This is the type of house I would dream of having. When Iím 40. Minimum. And here my friend, who once fell asleep on my couch in a pool of his own drool after a few too many Bud Lights, is living the American Dream.

There are schools here, nice ones, named after generous benefactors and esteemed civic legends. Playground basketball courts are surrounded by wooden areas and not only have nets on each hoop, but also three-point lines. Even the squirrels here are friendly.

Not surprisingly, I spent most of the weekend feeling like that seven-year-old. My hosts certainly didnít project that attitude; they were welcoming and open and as cool as ever. But, jeez ... I spent nine months of my life, fairly recently, without a bed. My friends have five. I live in a city where to own a car is to have lavish wealth. They have two, and a garage, and a security system that talks to you when youíve snuck outside to have a cigarette. ("The garage door is ajar," it tells me. "Oh, and you shouldnít smoke.") I sweep my floor once a year, or when a girl comes over, whichever comes first. They have more silverware than a Dennyís. The last time I cooked a meal at home, it involved hitting the "Popcorn" button on the microwave.

This is where grownups live.

I am at the kidsí table.

The question remains: Is this something I want someday? Something that will happen to me, when I stop banging my head against the New York wall and settle down, find a nice girl, invest in some long-term stocks, so on, so forth? I mean, I live a life now that, all things considered, is mostly bereft of consequences. Sure, I have a job, and I have to pay rent, and bills, and so on. But if I screw up my life, the only one whoís really inconvenienced is me. I am farting around, living in Manhattan as an extended exercise in self-absorption, Navel: A Still Life. I am young, and nothing really matters, not all that much, not yet. Someday, perhaps Iíll have a home like this, and I will take in single friends, irrepressible dreamers, in for Thanksgiving, and they can go through this process as well. I will be honored.

But not yet. Iím ready to get back to New York. I have cats to paint.



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